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Travellers in Libya Paperback – 1 Dec 2005


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Many years ago (to be precise, in January 1969) I published a book, The Deserts of Hesperides: an experience of Libya, in which I predicted that the day when Libya would become a tourist paradise (Clubs Mediterannées and the like... ) was far off. My prediction has turned out to be true. Yet John Wright's attractive anthology, the first volume in a new series produced by The Society for Libyan Studies under the imprint Silphium Press, has perfectly proper expectations to be a companion to many Libyan visits, even in the near future. Newspaper travel supplements and several of the more select (and expensive) travel company brochures, these days, carry seductive advertisements for Libyan tours. In the past few years the Lonely Planet and Footprint guidebook/handbook series have published detailed companions to Libya. As the blurb to the Footprint book puts it: this much maligned but little known country, for many years closed to western tourists , is about to be discovered again. But John Wright is not opportunist, or any sort of adjunct to the tourist industry. He is a serious (though also blessedly readable) scholar and historian. In a notably clear, crisp and attractively signposted Introduction, Wright brings on his enormously varied cast of contributors over fifty of them. They begin with the sixteenth-century Leo Africanus, Moorish exile from Spain to Fez, and thence eastward. They end with three charmingly ignorant and naïve young Italian soldiers writing home from Tripoli in 1911, just after the October invasion. Adventurers, Arabists, archaeologists, people on the look-out for commercial interests, scientists, journalists, propagandists, painters, military and naval officers, missionaries, prisoners, surveyors, what Wright calls the colonist or romantic tourist in search of an unspoilt and authentic past they are all here, and many more. A very few of them are pretty well known. The late eighteenth-century Miss Tully (how is it that her Christian name has never been discovered?) has long been noticed for her vivid letters written from the Tripoli consulate of her brother. Hugh Clapperton s travels in the 1820s have already been well edited by John Wright himself. The Beechey brothers survey is still useful, almost two hundred years later, to archaeologists. James Hamilton in the 1850s, and then Smith and Porcher in the 1860s, wrote accounts which have been frequently reprinted and drawn upon. Towards the end of Wright s long trawl, the eccentric Swainson Cowper (who produced a whole book on his theory or certainty that what in fact were Roman period olive-presses were trilithons) and the American Mabel Loomis Todd (incidentally though Wright does not comment on this crucially and romantically involved with the brother of the great American poet Emily Dickinson) make interesting appearances. As I hope I have suggested, the range and scope are enormous. In his Introduction, Wright comments that: The passages in this book are brief selections from a large mass of available material. Inevitably there are some repetitions because Tripoli and Benghazi, Cyrene and Leptis Magna were eventually seen and described by many foreign visitors. But one of the fascinations of this collection is the way in which different observers, at different times, see the same places, or the same kinds of incidents, with entirely different eyes, shades of description, judgements. Given Wright's self-imposed time-scale, from the early sixteenth-century Leo Africanus to the young Italian soldiers of 1911, it is hard to see how the representation could have been improved; Altogether this is an endlessly readable, to-be-dipped-into book, and I highly recommend it. --Anthony Thwaite, Poet

About the Author

John Wright was formerly the chief political commentator and analyst of the BBC Arabic Service, specialising in Libya, the Sahara and the international oil industry. In addition to his many articles, papers and lectures over the past forty years, he has written a PhD thesis and four books on Libya, and has edited two others.

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